Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, angry that a pay dispute involving court-appointed defense lawyers led to the release of three alleged drug dealers on Monday, has asked state legislators to take control of the state public defender agency from the judicial branch to end the burgeoning legal crisis, reports the Boston Globe. If given oversight of the Committee for Public Counsel Services, Romney said, he would force lawyers to choose between accepting new cases at current rates or be banned from doing such work in Massachusetts. Paraphrasing Calvin Coolidge’s famous denunciation of the Boston police strike of 1919, Romney called the decision by hundreds of private lawyers to refuse new cases unless their pay is drastically increased a “strike action against public safety.” “The public can’t allow criminal defendants to be set free when private attorneys decide to join in a strike action,” Romney said.
William Leahy, chief counsel for the committee, dismissed Romney’s vow to blackball court-appointed lawyers who refuse cases. “The threat to bar lawyers who are already leaving the program in droves is not likely to be the solution,” he said. “That would have the effect of making a bad situation worse.” Romney said 21 other states allow the executive branch to oversee public defenders. He will consider simply enlarging the pool of state-employed public defenders and ending use of private lawyers, a striking departure for a governor who was elected in part on promises to trim state payrolls.